Meb Byrne

Archive for the ‘children’ Category

Healthy Environment Healthy Children

In children, event, nyc, storytelling, trendy, west village on May 20, 2010 at 11:52 am

On a beautiful evening in May, a tall, middle-aged gentleman stood outside an unmarked door in the West Village. He wore an oversized black coat, a gold signet ring on his left hand, and a clear plastic earpiece wired down his back. His voice was businesslike but personable when I asked him about his job.

“It’s a job. Just like any other job. As long as you know your job. But you gotta be a people person, gotta know people.”

Does he do this job full time? He laughs.

“Sometimes. Full time sometimes. I do this a lot.”

A black Expedition pulled up to the curb, and the man stepped into the street to open the door. A blonde emerged, all black leggings and chunky platform boots adorned with zippers. He firmly welcomed her and directed her to the coat check and registration rooms, both behind other unmarked doors. She thanked him and strutted away.

The scene repeated itself for the next few hours. The gentleman, along with a half dozen other bouncers, stood guard outside the brick building, hands clasped behind their backs. They looked like they could stop trouble in its tracks, but mostly they opened the doors of yellow cabs for single women tottering in their heels. Everyone was there, from pretty young things in the trendiest platform stilettos, to perfectly coiffed bottle-blonde housewives in designer dresses, to gracefully aging matrons and their mustachioed husbands of how many years. Couples smiled nervously as they approached from up and down the street, the young women gripping their dates’ arms delicately but assertively. Single men in sharp suits were hard-pressed to unglue their eyes from their Blackberry screens. Sharp jaws, cheekbones and designer labels abounded: YSL, Dior.

Against this steady stream of well-heeled guests stood another group. They slouched in tight circles, dressed in white coats and checkered pants, pinching cigarettes between two fingers and shifting their weight from one foot to the other. The men’s hands were scarred; the lone woman wore a bandana and no makeup. They laughed hurriedly, privately, with each other and didn’t linger long; there was work to do inside.

This unusual crowd had gathered for the second annual benefit for Wellness in the Schools, the nonprofit organization of Chef Bill Telepan that supports healthy public school lunches, and The Greenhouse Project, dedicated to integrating environmental science education in New York City’s public schools. The event featured twenty or so chefs from some of the city’s best restaurants (Commerce, Gramercy Tavern, dell’anima, Babbo, Hearth, Candle 79), each preparing one or two small dishes for guests to sample; a sort of free-form tapas meal.

The benefit was held in the Stephan Weiss Studio, an open gallery space, warehouse tall and twinkling. Upstairs, a brightly-lit sunroom was dominated by an intimidating table strewn with baskets of crackers and wedges of crumbly cheeses. Glass doors opened onto an outdoor patio studded with wide wooden benches and draping trees. Multiple full bars were stockpiled with fleets of glinting wine glasses and highball tumblers, which kept the customers satisfied and the bussers busy.

For an event meant to emphasize the importance of good food, the benefit did not disappoint. Dishes ranged from the expected (delightfully simply hamachi ceviche and lox bagels) to the inventive (charred avocado with a delicate peanut butter crust). Playful textures were mastered by Alex Guarnaschelli from Butter (the crisp of her flatbread pizza’s crust contrasted with the smoothness of the toppings) and Telepan himself, whose vibrant carrot and peekytoe crab soup highlighted salty shavings of both ingredients. Even SchoolFood, the organization responsible for all breakfasts and lunches in NYC’s public schools, had a table, serving up baked triangular chips and various bean salads with a south-of-the-border twist. The most memorable dish of the evening, the miniature lamb meatball sliders, came as a golden brioche bun hugging a bright red meatball, spread with cool cheese and a cucumber sliver perched on top.

Dinner was excellent, but dessert was sinful. El Diavolo, a surprisingly thick chocolate mousse sprinkled with nibs of bitter cocoa, shocked with its aftertaste of hot pepper. Udon spoons from Levain Bakery cradled monster cookies wedges, chock full of nuts and chocolate chunks; shot glasses of milk were on hand as chasers. For non-chocolate-lovers, the best dessert by far was a pop-in-your-mouth cracker bejeweled with berries and mint, with a zing reminiscent of Now And Laters; a deconstructed summery fruit salad, if you will.

The steep price of admission wasn’t the only fundraiser of the evening. A silent auction featured, among many items, a guitar autographed by Sting. A competitive live auction (but all in good fun!) held even more prizes, including a backstage package and special tickets to the New York City Ballet, a dinner party at the Fatty Crab for thirty of your closest friends, a weekend in the Hamptons with Alec Baldwin, a helicopter ride with Cameron Diaz. All fetched admirable prices.

To cap off the evening, Eric Lewis, an intense young musician with silver metal gauntlets strapped to his wrists, mesmerized the crowd with his ferocious musical stylings. I cannot recommend this man enough. He lunged at his piano, banging out Mr. Brightside, The Diary of Jane and Smells Like Teen Spirit in rich, roaring tones of rockjazz, yet still satisfied the old-timers with Sweet Home Alabama. His driving sounds carried the well-to-do, well-fed guests and their exhausted servers out of the studio space, into the cool May air and the waiting night.


Kenyan Journal: “Mrs. Moko and Her Orphans”

In children, kenya, storytelling on January 16, 2010 at 6:05 pm

In the summer of 2006, I volunteered in Kenya for seven weeks. I lived with a Kenyan family, the Mwangis, in the town of Ngarariga outside of Limuru, Kenya’s second largest city. I played with children at the New Hope Children’s Orphanage for a few weeks, and later taught English and Creative Arts to fourth through seventh grade students in the nearby town of Ngatarama. The following is an excerpted entry from an online journal I kept to document my experiences.

In this post, Aunt Celia, a “mother” at the orphanage (pictured in purple above), has taken volunteers Sarah and Gerardo Guemez, an orphan named Massey (Mercy) and myself on a field trip to visit Mrs. Anna Moko, a woman who lives in the jungle with ten orphans in her home.


Mrs. Moko’s house doesn’t rest on much land, but the house itself is pretty modern and very nice- high ceilings, with a well-lit sitting room and an adjoining hallway leading to 4 or 5 other rooms, most used for bedrooms. As we came walking up the path, Sarah and I were in the lead. Almost all 10 kids were in the front yard playing, and they absolutely *froze* when they saw us. The older ones stayed & stared, but a good number of them darted off (to find Mrs. Moko and tell her white people were here, I later found out.) We greeted all of them, to a lot of giggling, and Mrs. Moko came out and greeted us and invited us inside.

We all sat in the sitting room, the 3 of us surrounded by these 10 kids, aged 5 to 11, all girls. Mrs. Moko and Celia promptly left us to our own devices, which was quite awkward for a few minutes until Gerardo, whiz with children that he is, broke the ice by asking all their names. This moves into asking about what animals they had and if any of them had names, and then into whether they had a garden and would they show it to us. Sarah kept quiet, but I was somewhat vocal with the girls sitting around me, so I got a few names- Paris, Maria, Veronica, Helen- and we all trouped outside to the garden. I was already holding the hands of two of the girls by the time we got to the garden, as was Gerardo I think, but at that point, my focus wasn’t on him. 🙂

The kids showed us their garden, which was pretty big- carrots, a little maize, beans, potatoes, bananas (the leaves are used for feeding the cows, the fruit being too small to be worth anything), kale, and some fruit trees that aren’t in bloom right now- pears, and maybe some other fruits, I don’t remember. From there, we were shown the back field, with the two cows (the baby was tied up in the front yard) and the tea plants. We were shown how to pick tea leaves: the only leaves that are good are the bright green ones at the top, and you have to pick off the ones in pairs of 2- not singles or 3’s, just twos. Apparently, these deliver the best flavor. While walking us home, Mrs. Moko informed me that Kenyan tea is the best in the world, which I’m certainly no authority on, so I just accepted it. 🙂

From there, we didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so we all flopped down in the back field, and Gerardo took off his socks and shoes (I soon followed suit), and the kids were FASCINATED by his feet and hairy legs. Mine weren’t quite as interesting, but they were still interested. Mrs. Moko told me later, as she showed me the house, that we were only the second group of white people that these kids have ever seen. Yeah. So they were generally more tactile than most kids we’ve come across, since they’re convinced that white skin feels different than black, and they want to see if we’re the same (Anna’s example was that she was sure they would come to her later and tell her that white people have toenails too!). Gerardo started doing simple hand tricks with the kids, which they all copied with screaming giggles, and he asked them all their ages, and tried on one girl’s blue head shawl, which was then passed to me, which I wore for the rest of our visit. We lapsed into played a twisted version of Duck Duck Goose- instead of tagging the person who ducked you, the goal was now to get to their seat before they did, and some of the kids were too smart for us and just ran the other way around the circle. That went on for a while, and when it got old, Gerardo invented the game of Get Into Groups Of The Number That I Call Out Or You Have To Dance For Us. I felt sick in the middle of that (darn tasty pasta and chupati), so I sat out for a while, and when I came back, everyone was getting pretty tired, so we all went inside.

We were served tea by the woman who helps around the house, and whose child stays with Mrs. Moko- a fair trade, I thought. We met Mr. Moko, who came late, and who was very cordial to us. It came up that Gerardo and Sarah were Catholic, and Mrs. Moko, after giving me a private tour of the house, asked my denomination. I told her I was Christian, but I never chose a denomination because I never wanted to choose, and I’d rather just focus on love and joy. She accepted this, and revealed that she wanted to know because she had African cloth with prints of the Virgin Mary on them, and she thought Sarah would like one. She asked if I’d like one, and I declined, but I said I knew Sarah would love one.

I was very proud of me.

The kids all lined up and sang us several songs, conducted by Aunt Celia. The one that sticks in my head goes thusly:

“I am a little star,

I am a little star,

Shining every day for Jesus.”

The stars also shone every night and every morning for Jesus. The most important thing about any Kenyan song is repetition, and a lot of it, with very little variation in lyrics.

We all prayed, as happens at every gathering of Kenyans, and Mrs. Moko thanked us for everything and gave us her email address. Aunt Celia gave her 1,000 shillings for breakfast the next day, and I did the same. I’d given the kids stickers before, and they weren’t any better at sharing than the New Hope kids, but the did look adorable with flowers and soccer balls plastered all over their faces.

The entire experience was so Von Trapp children. 🙂 It was great. They were the best behaved children I’ve met so far. They didn’t call us mzungus, or ask us for money, or act nasty in any way. It was really really nice.

Mrs. Moko and a friend of hers who had been visiting with her walked us all the way to the matatu stop, where we waited for quite a while. A matatu finally came, and I was all braced for another E ride home, but we hadn’t gotten very far down the road when white smoke started coming out of the tailpipe. We stopped to try to fix the problem, and then it was realized that we were out of petrol. Imagine that. So Celia and we volunteers and Mrs. Moko’s unknown friend started walking, with each of us taking turns carrying the sleepy Massey on our backs. Somehow I missed my turn, but whatever. Celia called Tiras at the orphanage, and he got the car and drove out to get us. Nevertheless, we were walking for a good hour, I think, while it got darker and darker and the houses got even fewer and farther between, which hardly seemed possible. The roads were relatively well-lit by the moon, but we didn’t feel especially safe, Sarah with her water bottle and Gerardo with his umbrella and me with my knife. Some trio, huh.

More journal entries are available online through the Global Volunteer Network website.

Obscure Christmas Albums

In album, children, holiday, list, music on December 21, 2009 at 3:02 pm

As Christmas draws wonderfully, tantalizingly close, the sounds of the holiday season may start to grate on you: in the shopping mall, in the grocery store, in your car. Don’t you wish you could have a bit of variety? Don’t you wish you could escape that looped track of “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”?

Never fear! Here are a few obscure Christmas albums and websites to spice up the seasonal drudgery that is Sir Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” played ad nauseum on your local radio station.

A Christmas Together, John Denver & the Muppets : Sing along to classic Christmas standards with your favorite furry friends. Recorded in 1979 for the Muppet television special of the same name, A Christmas Together pairs John Denver’s endearing simplicity with the madcap humor of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt and the rest of the Muppet performers. Who doesn’t want to hear Miss Piggy try (and fail) to lead a round of “Christmas Is Coming,” or Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem rock out to the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick”? (Spoiler: Animal yelling “Run run reindeer!” in the background is priceless.) The album has its poignant moments too: Robin crooning “When The River Meets The Sea” is perfect for snuggling with little ones by the fire.

More Twisted Christmas, Bob Rivers : One of the most irreverent parody singers all year round is at his best at Christmas. Bob Rivers’ album is composed entirely of wittily-parodied holiday tunes, including “Yellow Snow! Yellow Snow! Yellow Snow!” (Let It Snow), “Police Stop My Car” (Feliz Navidad), and the epic “Buttcracker Suite.” As a sampler of the lyrics you’ll get, the aforementioned Buttcracker Suite opens with “Thong! What a delightful gift idea / Thong! Magical shorts that disappear.” A great album for linguists, punny people, and anyone who likes classic rock, More Twisted Christmas will make it hard to breathe for laughing.

Note: Although I love this album, I can’t recommend Bob Rivers’ other Christmas compilations, including Twisted Christmas and Chipmunks Roasting On An Open Fire. The songs can be vulgar and almost racist.

A Rosie Christmas, various artists : This star-studded album by former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell is great fun for the whole family. The tunes are perky and filled with Rosie”s trademark enthusiasm. Each features an appearance from performers both young and old, from Sir Elton John, Celine Dion, Billy Joel and Cher to Elmo and Angelica Pickles. “Gonna Eat For Christmas,” with Gloria Estefan, is a sassy song that will resonate with all those slaving away in the kitchen this holiday season. Christmas tag radio : This station on, one of the leading free listening music sites now coming into vogue, plays a wide variety of holiday favorites non-stop with few repeats. Artists range from Bing Crosby and Eartha Kitt to Jethro Tull and Mariah Carey, with some Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Weird Al Yankovic thrown in there too. The site requires you to create a (free) profile to listen in, but the great mix of old and new tunes you get makes it well worth it.

Finally, for those of you with a penchant for overdone 80s pop ballads, there is, which catalogs every recording ever made of Wham!’s seasonal hit. If you don’t know all the words by heart already, I guarantee you will soon.

Happy listening!

Kenyan Journal: "Teaching"

In children, kenya, storytelling on December 6, 2009 at 10:47 am

In the summer of 2006, I volunteered in Kenya for seven weeks. I lived with a Kenyan family, the Mwangis, in the town of Ngarariga outside of Limuru, Kenya’s second largest city. After playing with children at the New Hope Children’s Orphanage for a few weeks, I began teaching English and Creative Arts to fourth through seventh grade students at Murengeti Primary School in the nearby town of Ngatarama. The following is an entry from an online journal I kept to document my experiences.
My first day at Murengeti didn’t give me much confidence in the school, or my teaching abilities, or whether I’d even be useful there. Wednesday turned out a lot better. I taught 4 classes: 7G (G is green, B is blue, & that’s the way it’ll be from now on), 5G, and both 6’s. I also helped grade exams a bit, and I spent a lot of time going over the textbooks deciding on what I should focus in my lessons. In my omnipresent Bag O’ Wonder, I’m now carrying around textbooks for the 5’s and 7’s, and some extra English books for the 4’s as well.

The 7’s had just read a passage on drugs and drug use, so I skipped the comprehension questions and held a bit of a class discussion on different types of drugs and what they do and why they’re bad. The kids (surprisingly) didn’t know about any of the harder drugs- most of what they knew was alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, plus some Kenyan drugs that I’m not too familiar with. I touched on AIDS and drugs a bit (of course I did, what did you expect? :’D), and I gave them most of the lesson to write a composition on What I Would Do If My Friend Started Taking Drugs. I collected those and graded them that night. Again, the writing level is way below what I would expect for 7th graders. Even Ann, who saw me grading, said that the essays would be fine for 5’s, but not 7’s. Erg. The kids have a big problem with gender continuity (his and hers are basically interchangeable, even in daily speech) and tense, as well as basic things (spelling, grammar, etc.)

I stuck with the book more with the 5’s. We read a passage about The Drought and talked a bit about it. I was proud of myself- I had an interdisciplinary moment and asked if the kids knew of any stories in the Bible about the drought, so we were regaled with the Good Samaritan and Jesus and the fishes and loaves, and one kid said Genesis- is there a drought in Genesis? I was only going for the loaves and fishes, but they answered the question well. I handed out paper for a composition on The Camel in the Desert, but we ran out of time and I assigned it for homework.

I had C/A with 6G and 6B, and for both lessons, I asked the kids if they knew any songs. Both classes sang lot of reggae songs in unison, with accompaniment (of course), and then some kids sang solos and I sang at their request a bit, and in 6G we ended up singing a version of Siya Hamba (oh, SCC) and marching and jumping and walking around the room, as the song dictated (“We are ____ing in the light of God, we are ____ing in the light of God”.)

Thursday was a bit of a day off. Murengeti hosted a district-wide HIV/AIDS extravaganza with 6 other schools. There’s a Peer Counselor training program in place at Murengeti, where kids are trained about HIV and no adultery and no sex before marriage and no drugs (but nothing about condoms, grrrr), and this event was focused around them. All the peer counsellors from Murengeti (including Kevin, John & Mama Duta’s son!! He’s in 5G, & he’s *very* vocal in class- born leader type) had made signs, and they (with me in tow) marched to Ngarariga, singing and dancing and flashing peace signs, which apparently means that they’ll wait till marriage for sex? 🙂 I dunno. I felt left out, so I took out my notebook and wrote AIDS KILLS in block letters on the back and carried it for the parade. The kids liked it. When we got to Ngarariga, there were 3 other schools there, all with paper visors or signs. We waited for about an hour while the rest of the schools showed up, and I got to know some more of our kids: Dennis, with a cut on his lip, who told me he has a CD out and he’s going to come to the US ^_^; David with the grey sports coat, who’s very serious; Margaret with fuzzy braided hair; Grace with curving braids; Lillian, who’s vocal and paler than the rest; and Susan, who wears prescription sunglasses- it seems to be the thing to do here, I’ve seen it a lot.

We all trouped back to Murengeti, singing and waving the signs to passers-by. When we showed up, the whole school was in the back field, where desks had been set up, along with tables and chairs for the teachers and a table for the judges. (People failed to tell me that this was the first round of a competition, and the best school will go on to the Divisionals this coming Friday in Limuru. I actually don’t know who finally won! :’P) The MC-of-sorts greeted everyone and a woman led us in prayer and the presentations began. There were solo and choral verses, followed by songs and dances, and finally skits and dramas, all telling us how awful AIDS is and how important it is to protect ourselves by not having sex til after marriage. All these were introduced by a solo child coming forward and telling the judges, teachers, and students what they were about to see. One solo verse had a boy addressing AIDS, personified by a boy in a sheet and a tall mask, slightly reminiscent of t he Knights of Ni, with porcupine quills and feathers on it, dancing around. My favourite verse was one called Kissing Is A Habit, since it incorporated something along the lines of “the girl gets the blame” and “10 minutes of pleasure, 9 months of pain, 2 days in the hospital.” The dramas were quite good, all following basically the same storyline- girl disobeys parents, goes out with boy, ends up pregnant and HIV+. One of them was the closest thing to musical theatre that I’ve seen here, with a boy and girl singing to each other to symbolize that they were lovers. (The girl was hopping from guy to guy to guy at the time.) They all had costume changes and a table and chairs for sets, and one scene at the disco was complete with dancing extras, a radio with dance music, an bottles of “beer”. :’D It was very good.

One inexplicable part of a drama was when the pregnant, HIV+, destitute girl started singing Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” to her stomach (complete with pillow), which kicked in response. ?_?

The program went longer than was originally planned, since we started late, and I ended up out in the sun for much longer than I’d planned, sans sunscreen. As a result, that night I found that my lips, nose, and the general lower half of my face were *really* burned, to the point of being blistered. >_< I took a needle to the blisters on my lips, and the rest of them were small enough to be scratched off. My face is really dry today.

Friday was back to the regular teaching circuit. I taught 4B about nouns and verbs, which they were very good at, and I tried to do adjectives, but that’s a bit too abstract, so I gave up & went back to verbs. We discussed past, present, and future tense for a while, since I’ve heard from many people that that’s hard for Kenyans to understand. I gave them 5 verbs to write in all 3 tenses (one of which was accidentally “sit”- past tense was a problem, but I told kids the issue and sometimes let them get away with “sitted” instead of “sat”), and they got star stickers for doing it correctly. They quickly figured out that they could show me their book twice and I wouldn’t know the difference and they’d get two stars, and then I figured out what they were doing and the lesson was over anyway so I left. I tried to do the same thing with 5G, and we read two stories in their book. I really stressed reading comprehension when I found out that none of the kids were able to tell me in their own words what the story was about. :-[ I then read them Horton, which they *loved*- they applauded after I finished reading a page. I’d gotten coloured paper from Gladys earlier, so I had them draw their favourite part of the book, hoping for something along the lines of comprehension. I got a lot of elephants, but some were in a tree, and some were with a bird in a nest, and I got one giraffe, and Kevin drew a huge egg, so there’s hope.

That afternoon, I helped to grade and copy over more exams, and I taught C/A to 6B. I duplicated my Horton-and-drawing thing, but I told them they could draw whatever they wanted. They immediately went to their books and traced as many drawings as they could from the pictures in the text. Frustrating, but it’s a start. Gladys failed to inform me that C/A was, in fact, a double lesson for 6B, so we ended up with time to spare. I sat with some of the older girls, and they wanted me to sing, so I did, and they wanted me to say a poem, so I recited the lyrics to Carrickfergus, since it was in my head & it’s pretty. They sang a bit, too- one girl sang A Long Time Ago In Bethlehem, which I know from John Denver, so I got excited. 🙂

It’s a bit thrilling when you’re referred to as Teacher Mary, or when you get to tell someone you’re a teacher. I don’t feel like I’m apologizing, as I do whenever I tell someone I’m an actor.

Today, I got up pretty early (since my body never lets me sleep in) and came to Nairobi. I got breakfast at Kenchic, where they’re kuku about chicken (apparently), and I ate a sausage and meat in this fried dough triangle and more meat in this long crispy tube. I *finally* got into Bookpoint, the only book shop I’ve been able to find outside Nakumatt, which is woefully wanting books that interest me, and I struck GOLD. I bought A Doll’s House, A Tale of Two Cities, and… *Monstrous Regiment*. It’s another Terry Prachett and I’m SO PUMPED to read it!! I got another notebook for me and lined paper for the kids to write compositions, and I got Aloe Vera lotion at Nakumatt for my poor blistered face, and milk, since I always get milk when I go to Nakumatt. I ran into Sarah & Gerardo on the street (!!!!!!!!), and we caught up. Maasai Mara was a major culture shock for them, and they’re preparing to go to Tanzania for a week. I’m comforted by the fact that Sarah has the same rash of bites on her stomach and limbs that I do- they aren’t mosquitoes, and they don’t bleed, but they itch like *crazy* and I think they’re spreading. David said they could be anything, flies or fleas or ticks, etc.

I’m going to look for the Maasai market and Ushanga (Usheng’s?), a store that reputedly carries beads for necklaces, and then I feel like heading home. I don’t know if I’ll be back to Nairobi next weekend- I’d like to tour Kibera, but I hope I won’t have to buy any more supplies. At this point, I’m trying to get rid off all the stuff I brought with me, books and stickers and that stupid bag of puff balls that I don’t know *what* to do with. 🙂

I finished Clive Leatherdale’s Dracula: The Novel and the Legend. It was good in the beginning, but it turned into a bit of a slog near the end, when ol’ Clive got into talking about Marxist and tarot-based reading of Dracula… It’s worth reading, but only if you’ve read Dracula itself, and only if you really liked it. I’m now reading A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey, on recommendation from Joanna- it’s *really good*. It’s intense, but *really good*.

Mom & Dad come home from Europe on Monday. Mom said she wants a giraffe from Kenya, and Dad said he just wants my smile. :’DDD If anyone specifically wants anything from Kenya, I suggest you tell me now, and I’ll see what I can do. Reasonable requests, please- Seth and Bobby, I know what you’re going to ask for.

Wish me luck finding this market! 🙂 Peace. 

More of these journal entries are available online through the Global Volunteer Network website.